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January 20, 2006

The Commerce of Cartography: Making and Marketing Maps in Eighteenth-Century France and England - Mary Sponberg Pedley

Posted by Jeremy Black

The Commerce of Cartography: Making and Marketing Maps in Eighteenth-Century France and England
by Mary Sponberg Pedley
Pp. xvii+345. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005
Hardback, £25.50

An important work for cartographic historians, this scholarly study is also valuable for the commerce and culture of enlightenment, as well, more specifically, for Anglo-French intellectual relations and for the understanding and depiction of the transoceanic world, the latter with particular reference to the cartographic presentation of Narragansett Bay.

Due to the very extensive appendices, particularly on the costs of map production in France and, to a lesser extent, England, and to the very lengthy notes, the text is less extensive than might be anticipated, while, as Pedley candidly admits, much of the work on the English section of the book is heavily reliant on secondary or printed primary material, but what is offered is of great value.

Particularly instructive is the tension between cartographic accuracy and commercial pressures in a situation in which new, but often difficult to verify, information from the transoceanic world was arriving with considerable frequency.

The dependence of the map world on the private sector emerges repeatedly, particularly, but not only, in England. Ironically, one of the chief beneficiaries of this commercial world was the French navy, which was able to purchase information from England, although the relatively small size of international sales by London map sellers suggest that a map seller could not look to the international market to move large numbers of maps. Dependence on the private sector for sales and finance ensured that the customer's view was crucial in the map world.

As Pedley explores, technical issues, such as suitable projections, appropriate scales, and uniformity of coverage, were not, as a result, always uppermost. Instead, cost was a key element, as was accuracy, but, as Pedley makes clear, the latter was difficult to define, and this helped focus concern on cost. Even maps drawn from actual surveys could be found wanting in accuracy.

Debate over cartographic objectives encouraged interests in improvement, particularly: systemized training; better pay and more government support; and a regulatory body to vet the quality of productions and to enforce privileges and copyrights in order to ensure that the market was not swamped with cheap imitations, the last a French interest. Unsurprisingly, as Pedley profitably discusses, commercial pressures were more important, specifically a consolidation of map publishing, while consumers were left to be their own judges of quality.

As with modern commercial cartography, commercial exigencies were very pressing. This was true at every level, but more so of production than sales. For example, the long-term employment prospects of engravers and printers were precarious. Furthermore, bankruptcies attested to the precarious balance of credit and debit accompanying the fiscal danger of devoting attention to mapmaking alone. In contrast, the successes in the map business were those who kept diverse stock, not specializing in maps but selling related materials and prints as well.

In contrasting France and England, Pedley shows that there was a common search for financial support by similar methods, but that England differed in the absence of mémoires or explanatory texts published to accompany maps, a speciality of the more self-consciously intellectual French map world of the period. Supported by eight colour plates and forty-one halftones, this is a work of considerable interest that hopefully will encourage comparable studies for other eighteenth-century centres of map production, such as Amsterdam and Hamburg. Such work is also badly needed for the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. Amongst much else, he is the author of Visions of the World: A History of Maps (Mitchell Beazley, 2003), Maps and Politics (Reaktion, 2000), Maps and History: Constructing Images of the Past (Yale University Press, 1997) and The European Question and the National Interest (Social Affairs Unit, forthcoming).

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